Welcome to the latest installment of Ms. Opinionated, in which readers have questions about the pesky day-to-day choices we all face, and I give advice about how to make ones that (hopefully) best reflect our shared commitment to feminist values—as well as advice on what to do when they don't.
Dear Ms. Opinionated:
I think I'm about to lose all my friends, and I don't know what to do! I'm part of a group of ladies who have been tight since college and then stayed in the same city, and about once a month we do a big dinner together. Now, unlike most of the rest of my girls who are either all married or in well-paying fields, I'm single and I work for a non-profit so between my low salary and my student loans, I'm basically broke—especially right before my paycheck comes in. But over the years as my friends' financial situations all improved, the restaurants people picked got more expensive and the dinners more elaborate, to the point where we were drinking bottles of wine instead of a beer each.
I guess I just assumed everyone knew or would be fine with it because we've been friends for so long, but somewhere along the way, I became the person who doesn't put in enough money. It was just going to be once, when I wound up a little short and didn't say anything, but then a couple of my friends threw in a couple of extra dollars and no one seemed mad or tried to point fingers. And then it was a couple more dollars here or there, just to have cab fare home, and eventually I just started paying what I felt I could afford and trying to be cognizant about drinking less or ordering salads so it wouldn't be as noticeable. But this week, I hadn't gotten paid yet and I didn't really have the money but I wanted to see everyone so I just put in what I had, which left us more than just a little short and it got a little ugly and everyone started pointing fingers at everyone else and I just shut up. But now I don't know if we'll ever even do another dinner and two of my friends aren't speaking to one another and I feel like I should say it was my fault but I know they'll all hate me.
I have to disclose at the outset that you are my pet peeve about group dinners. I'm sure you're a totally nice person otherwise, but every group dinner has at least one person who "forgets" to include the tax in their calculations of what they owe (or something similar), and a large enough group always has someone who orders cocktails, appetizers and dessert and then wants to just split the check evenly. As someone who often used to end up collecting the money for any group dinner I was at, I have definitely thrown in more than my share of extra fives and even twenties to make sure the bill got covered and the server got tipped appropriately and always pretended like I didn't mind that much and didn't know who it was that didn't throw in enough cash.
So, let me tell you the truth: there is at least one person in your group who knows exactly what you've been doing. And she didn't hold her tongue because she loves you or because she secretly agrees with all your self-justifications, she did it because she didn't want to make a scene and ruin everyone else's good time and good feelings about your dinner. But she knows. And I'm betting that she either stopped coming all together or wasn't there this week because, if things got as messy as it sounds like they did, she wouldn't have had any reason to be quiet any longer and probably won't stay that way if the fighting continues.
I know that it's hard (and, in some circles, impolite) to talk about money, but it's about time you did so with your friends. If this particular check is pulling your friends apart and ruining other friendships, you have to bite the bullet and explain that you were the person who didn't throw enough money into the kitty and how sorry you are that you didn't tell them that you didn't have enough cash and didn't speak up when things got ugly. They're your friends, right? Tell them how embarrassed you were to not have the money, and how you didn't know what else to do and you really regret having been the cause of all this ruckus. It's best if you can call them each individually to have this conversation, because it will turn into a pile-on in a mass email and sound less sincere, and it'll also be harder for any individual person to be really mean to you if you honestly feel bad for what you did and briefly let them know that your personal financial situation is more precarious than they realize.
Then, no matter how hard it is, you absolutely have to stop being a freeloader on your friend group. The next time you guys start planning a dinner, pipe up at the outset and ask if people would mind trying to be more budget-conscious in their restaurant choices, because you love seeing them and it's your one big outing a month, but the restaurants are getting more expensive than you can really afford. You are, I promise you, not the only one who is noticing that things have gotten more and more expensive over time, even if you are really the only one who can't afford it. Offer some suggestions of places to go and, no matter what, if a glance at the menu for the place they end up picking looks out of your price range, politely decline.
If you can't afford to split the bill evenly (and that's what they're doing), ask during the planning process if you guys can start paying for your individual purchases and then be cognizant of what you're ordering -- that way, you can have your bottle of beer rather than sharing in several bottles of wine, or skip dessert, or whatever it takes to not bite off more than you can (financially) chew. If that's not feasible, call ahead and see if you can request a separate check from your server and then do so as you're placing the order, which will allow you to, again, control what you spend and pay what you can afford. If it's just about the expense of splitting things "for the table," let them know before they order that you won't be drinking the wine or sharing in the dessert and you appreciate their understanding -- and then keep your wineglass and dessert fork empty.
If it happens again that don't quite have the cash to cover something, don't just throw in what you have and expect that no one will mind covering an unexpected shortfall (especially because, in an unexpected shortfall, it almost always ends up the unsaid responsibility of the person collecting the money). Ask one of your friends if you can borrow a few dollars with a promise to pay them back in a couple of days. If you have a credit card, ask if you can put your share on a card -- which will allow you to pay the restaurant then and the credit card company later. At the very least, apologize to the group, let them know exactly how much you are short and promise to make it up to whomever can cover you in any way you can.
But you need to start asking their permission to lean on them this way, rather than just assuming they will or they can afford it. In effect, you need to start taking responsibility for living (and dining) within your means, rather than trying to keep up with the Joneses. And if your friends are really your friends -- or stay your friends, after you caused this whole issue and made everyone feel bad about the last dinner -- then they'll not understand why you're asking to try a burger place rather than hit a steakhouse, but they also might appreciate the reminder that a big group dinner is supposed to be more about the friendships than the food.
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Photo credit: Kate Black, kateblack.com